While looking into YouTube for illustrative material, I came across an accidental learning network which took me from vague understanding of a piece to one sufficient to recreate the piece from its DNA. Let me explain.
Reich, probably the best known minimalist composer, stumbled upon phasing technique by accident. He explains in this clip (at 2:30) from a South Bank Show special. The same recorded musical fragment was copied onto two separate tape loops (it was the 60s after all). Both machines were started simultaneously but, because few such machines run at exactly the same speed, one began to edge in front of the other – creating (the impression of) new rhythms and melodies emerging. Eventually they would end up back in sync.
Piano Phase, the first live phasing piece, begins with a 12-note fragment which you can see at 5:46 in the clip. This was a real find – the DNA of the piece. I decided to construct a version of the piece from that. The musical motif is to be played simultaneously by two pianists. Then one will edge ahead of the other. A live human performance would allow one person to make tiny, almost unnoticeable adjustments. Using score writing software – I had to choose specific durations and decided that the size of step I would take would be half the length of the notes themselves. This means that, following the initial exposition of the theme, the music would move through 24 noticeable changes before returning to synchrony. In the following midi file (which really represents a portrait of the piece, as opposed to the piece itself) the piano on the right edges forward while the one on the left holds to the original pulse. Each edging forward takes place after 4 repetitions.
Having seen the outcome of this, I realised that the apparent simplicity of this music belies the incredible difficulty in performing it. Reich himself in the South Bank Show interviews, stressed how this requires listening at an intense level. Various phasing pieces ensued over Reich’s career. Some are played by two or more people and some by one person against a recording. This amazing and beautifully shot film of (parts of) Piano Phase features Peter Aidu playing solo, on two pianos:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/qKXy1FPTdvg" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
I was pleased at having learned so much about the piece and the compositional techniques but ended up being more interested in the following question: if you were taking part in such a piece would you prefer to play with/against:
another live musician?
Here are some other versions of Piano Phase on YouTube:
Steve Reich also has a MySpace, which includes the entire South Bank Show documentary as well as extracts from My Name is Daniel Pearl; Fast; Music for 18 Musicians; Different Trains; & Electric Counterpoint.